COLUMBIA — On a late October morning, a chill envelopes Crown Gordon Vineyard and squeezes out any last drop of warmth from the day. Sunlit dewdrops cling to wet blades of grass and coat the hill with a metallic sparkle interrupted only by the soft indentations of work boots winding in and out of rows and rows of vines.
The sun rose just 30 minutes earlier, and already Eli Bergmeier cannot stop moving. The long, slender stem of a cigarette hangs from his lips as he deposits grape lugs down an endless row of Norton grapes that will be collected, harvested and studied at a lab at MU.
Norton: Missouri’s state grape is highly resistant to disease. The hearty, medium-sized berry makes a dry, dark red wine.
Chardonel: The grape is a hybrid of Chardonnay and Syval Blanc. It makes a white wine similar to Chardonnay. This varietal is particularly susceptible to phylloxera.
Chambourcin: The voluptuous, dark blue clusters make a full-bodied, dry red wine.
Vignoles: The white wine grape is common throughout the Midwest wine industry and produces distinct wines, including dry and sweet dessert varieties.
Vidal Blanc: The grape grows well in cold climates and makes a semi-dry white wine that pairs well with seafood.
Traminette: The white wine grape has a history of insect problems, but yields more success when the bud is grafted to pest-resistant rootstocks. The varietal makes a white, floral and slightly spicy wine, which is just now gaining popularity in Missouri.
Corot noir: This red wine grape was released in 2006 by the Cornell University New York State Agricultural Experiment station, and is a cross between Seyve Villard 18-307 and Steuben. The black fruit produces a red wine with a fruity taste and cherry aroma.
Acidity: The tart flavor that gives wines a crisp taste.
Enology: The study of wine and winemaking — from vine to bottle.
Fermentation: The process of yeast catalyzing grape sugars into alcohol, turning grapes into wine.
Harvest: One of the most critical times during winemaking, which is determined by the ripeness, acidity, sugar and tannin levels of the grape. Different varieties are harvested at different times between August and October.
Phylloxera: The microscopic insect is a pest that attacks grapevines at the roots. It is a worldwide pest. Europe was exposed to phylloxera when French winemakers imported Missouri rootstocks into the country.
Rootstock: The stump of a plant with an established healthy root system is grafted to the top of another budding plant for pest and disease control.
Varietal: Wines made from a single type of grape, such as Vignoles or Norton.
Vintage: The harvest year. When a label is marked with a certain year, all grapes used to make that particular wine were harvested during the indicated year.
Viticulture: The science and study of grapes.
Bergmeier’s head, and the heads of five others bob up and down, scarcely reaching the tops of the lush, leafy vines that bear the weight of amethyst clusters, ready, after a cold and wet harvest, to be plucked. One by one, the workers leave the maze and convene under the shade of a looming hedge apple tree. Bergmeier lights another cigarette and spouts off the day's goals. This season, they have harvested 20 plots, and they now face their last.
All that is left in the next few hours are six rows. Two short, four long. One hundred forty-four unilaterally trained vines.
“Oh, and there’s a bit of a squishy berry syndrome going on here,” Bergmeier said. “Remember, if it’s still firm it’s OK. If it’s not OK, it will get counted but not weighed.” He takes a breath. “Does everyone have what they need?”
The researchers have their data cards. A few grab pencils. In Wellies and sweat-soaked T-shirts, they begin the work that once made Missouri a front-runner in the wine world, but since Prohibition, has been slow to restart — at least until now.
As the commercial wine industry in Missouri pushes its way back to prominence, the university is pushing with it. The MU Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology is spearheading research that could spur a Missouri wine renaissance and put the growing industry on the global map. With fledgling education and extension programs, an experimental winery and plans to build its own commercial vineyard and winery, even the most discriminating enthusiasts might add several locally produced wines to their collections. Among them could be vintages carrying an MU label.
The institute, funded almost completely by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, aims to enable students and vintners to learn the best practices of grape-growing and winemaking through hands-on experience. By focusing on education, research, extension programs and service to the industry, the institute, founded in 2006, provides specialized programs across disciplines for present and future vintners to learn in the classroom, the field, the lab and, eventually, at MU’s first winery.
“Our goal is to be involved from the vineyard to the table,” said Keith Striegler, MU viticulturist and head of the institute.
The institute is young, but it has the support of Missouri vintners, who hope to change the state’s wine industry for the better. An experimental winery is under construction, and beginning next year, it will serve as a crucial resource for students pursuing a wine-related field. Although the wine produced experimentally will not be sold, Striegler and his colleagues at the institute also hope to build a commercial winery and vineyard as another teaching resource, and will allow the Institute to recover costs. The wine will be available exclusively through MU, and poured at university events.
'The hub of our operation'
After hours spent collecting and harvesting 21 plots at wineries across the state, institute researchers lug the fruits of their labor to the lab, where they study seven grape varieties to understand what grows best under certain conditions. Throughout the year, Bergmeier works in Room 135 of Eckles Hall — a sensory laboratory now converted into a grape research lab — to conduct studies with 10 other students and institute researchers.
“This is the hub of our operation,” he says, pausing from the grape sample he was taking to gesture toward the room.
Wearing juice-blotted lab coats and protective eyewear, researchers huddle over counters covered with glass volumetric flasks, each filled with juice, hand-squeezed from 100 grape samples they have taken from plots such as these at Crown Gordon Vineyard. Here, with grape-stained hands, they conduct experiments on grapevine cultivars, rootstocks and cultural practices, and in conjunction with other scientists, research on vineyard weed control as well as insect pest and disease management. Now that harvest is finished, the pressure is on the lab to collect and determine the results of certain experiments.
To say that the work being done here is important would be an understatement. While many vineyards in Missouri have a lab to run basic sugar and acidity tests, grape growers rely on the data and experiment results yielded by the institute to prepare for upcoming seasons and the constant threats to their vines from weather and viruses.
Cory Bomgaars, head winemaker at Les Bourgeois Winery, is no exception. The winery has lost at least 30 percent of its Chardonel varietal to an unknown virus. Rows of healthy vines mix with the diseased and dead vines he has yet to remove. The leaves of the ill-fated plants are dry and wrinkled, marked by the virus’ signature. He hopes by analyzing eight rootstock samples, Les Bourgeois and the researchers will discover the best way to grow Chardonel in this environment.
“It’s great for me,” said Bomgaars of his relationship with the institute. “The program can continue to research while (Les Bourgeois) benefits from the information on what rootstock can best survive the virus.”
The institute is in the midst of three other studies in distinct areas at the Rocheport winery, including an experiment on canopy management, one of four locations in Missouri for the Best Management Practices Project. The project, one of the institute's outreach efforts, unites vintners and researchers across Missouri in an effort to provide more efficient growing and production techniques that cut costs and environmental impact.
“We work with grape growers to bring them fact-based, researched information to design or install vineyards under conditions that will lead to the greatest chance of success,” said Andy Allen, the institute’s extension viticulturist.
However, most of the data collected during this harvest, including the rootstock and canopy studies at Les Bourgeois, will not be put to use for at least another year.
“Most of our studies are multiyear experiments, so we have to be cautious with results after one year,” Bergmeier said, and even after the data has been analyzed, “sometimes answers only spur more questions.”
Since January, the lab has begun nine new experiments, several which will last at least 15 years.
Bergmeier, though, is certain of one thing: Missouri’s climate can be a grape grower’s best friend or worst enemy, and it cannot be controlled.
“We wish we could,” he laughed.
'A place where students can be taught'
In 2007, a late Easter freeze caused a light crop to ripen quickly and forced growers into an early harvest. With relatively cool and wet weather, 2008 couldn't be more different. Ripening was slow, making this year's harvest somewhat of a guessing game.
However, the institute is using Missouri’s unpredictable climate to its advantage. Striegler acknowledges Missouri’s talented winemakers, but he said the industry wants to hire more Missouri-trained vintners who are familiar with the variability of the state's climate. He is confident the industry’s future is at MU. Students interested in pursuing a career in wine can now enroll in the enology track within the food science program. The enology track will work directly with food science and hospitality courses to allow students to be involved on a variety of levels of work production.
“What we’re offering is similar to what you would find at any winery,” Striegler said. “We’re creating a place where students can be taught every aspect of the business.”
Streigler said educating future vintners within the track will lead to better winemaking knowledge and career opportunities for MU graduates. Compared to Napa Valley or New Zealand, Missouri’s variable weather patterns and countless pest problems make growing grapes a challenge. If these potential winemakers can learn to make a good vintage in Missouri, they can make great wine almost anywhere, Streigler said.
Since 2002, the United States wine market has risen nearly 14 percent, and the institute recognizes the pressure Missouri vintners are under to produce. Extension enologist Rebecca Ford works directly with vintners during the year through programs such as the Wine Technical Group and winemaking workshops to improve education statewide. She and her colleagues are interested in closing the knowledge gap between Missouri’s winemakers and wine researchers.
"A large number of Missouri winemakers have no education. They are trying to fulfill a dream of owning a vineyard, but what they don't realize is making wine is a real chemistry and science-based profession," Ford said. The New Zealander moved to Missouri only a year ago and was surprised at the educational and climate challenges Missouri winemakers face.
'It takes years to make good wine'
According to the Wine and Grape Board in 2005, the total economic impact of the Missouri wine and grape industry was more than $640 million, with the number of Missouri wineries projected to increase by 25 percent in 2007.
“Only now is the Missouri wine industry developing," Ford said. "There are a few old, established wineries doing a great job, and we can establish more. It takes years to make good wine and to be a great winemaker.”
Until recently, the institute has focused on viticulture research, but Striegler is anxious for next October, when the institute will produce wine of its own. For now, the space of the experimental winery has been cleared for construction, and the machines—a crusher, destemmer, fermentation vessels and a half-ton, $20,000 press—have been put into storage.
“It’s a work in progress,” Ford said, walking through the building, echoing the sentiments of her colleagues.
Still, Ford isn’t worried. There’s a lot to look forward to, and plenty of work to be done now. The institute sees 2009 as a milestone. The winery will open, research will be completed and future vintners will step through the doors of Eckles Hall.